Sunday, 18 September 2016

Brent: Full Council barred from discussing RSG freeze and Efficiency Plan

Cllr John Warren's request LINK to the Mayor for discussion of the possibility of an Extraordinary Brent Council Meeting to discuss the freezing of Brent Council's Revenue Support Grant (RSG) for four years  and the consequent Efficiency Plan has been turned down by Council Officers.

The Revenue Support Grant is the main source of funding for local councils but is gradually being phased out

This will mean that both decisions will be made by Brent's CEO and Muhammed Butt, and will not be discussed by the Council or any further by the Cabinet.

In a letter to Warren, Fiona Alderman, Brent Council's Chief Legal Officer stated:
The Mayor has considered your request and has confirmed the his response set out below after having taken advice from officers.
"There are no special circumstances justifying the consideration of this item at this meeting as a matter of urgency. I cannot therefore allow it to be added to the agenda. I would also add that the decision on the Financial Position 2017/18- 2019/20 and option to fix RSG settlement is a function exercisable by the Cabinet and has already been considered by the Cabinet."
Cllr Warren, leader of Brent Conservative Group, commented:
It is totally disgraceful that the  leader is allowed to make such an important decision and Council members will not be able to question/ express a view.


Philip Grant said...

The Chief Finance Officer's report to the Cabinet meeting on 13 September began by saying:
'This report sets out the council's medium term financial position and the major strategic considerations arising from this. This will provide context for proposals for the budgets for 2017/18 and 2018/19, which the council will
need to set over the coming months.'

Later on in his report, the Chief Finance Officer made clear the impact that the proposals would have on the Council's income policy, especially Council Tax, saying:
'5.4. This clearly illustrates the significance of the decision on council tax. The savings required from service budgets in the next two years can be more than halved [to £17m] if council tax is increased each year. Formal consultation on this, and other budget options, will commence in October, but it serves to emphasise the significance of the decision that Members will have to make on council tax.'

Although the Chief Legal Officer may be correct in saying that the matters on which a decision was taken on 13 September 'is a function exercisable by the Cabinet', the effect of that decision on the amount of Council Tax which Brent will have to raise over the next three years cannot be put to one side.

Part 4 of Brent's Constitution makes clear that the setting of Council Tax is solely a function of Full Council, and not of the Cabinet:
1. The levying or issuing of a precept for a rate and the setting of council tax and limits for borrowing money.
[Local Government Finance Act 1988 / Local Government Finance Act 1992 / Section 3 Local Government Act 2003.]'

In those circumstances, I agree that it is right that all elected members should have the opportunity to know what plans the Leader and Chief Executive are putting forward on Brent's behalf, and have the chance to have their say on these at a special meeting of the Full Council before 14 October.

Philip Grant.

Philip Grant said...

Under the Standing Orders, set out in Part 3 of Brent's Constitution:
'4. Mayor's Rulings Under Standing Orders:
(a) The Mayor shall decide on the construction, interpretation or application of these Standing Orders in relation to the proceedings at a meeting of Full Council.'

Note that it is the Mayor who 'shall decide', not the Chief Legal Officer or any other officer or member. Whether a matter can be raised as "Urgent Business" at a Full Council meeting should be entirely at the Mayor's discretion, and as the Mayor is meant to act as a neutral Chair of the meeting, any reasonable request which can show that it is urgent should be accepted (if time permits).

For all other committee meetings, the Standing Order which applies is SO64, which reads:
'64. Any Other Urgent Business as an Agenda Item:
At all meetings of Council committees and sub-committees that are not special meetings, there shall be an item on the agenda entitled 'Any Other Urgent Business'. Any member of the committee or sub-committee as the case may be who wishes a matter to be raised under this Agenda heading shall give written notice to the Head of Executive and Member Services or his or her representative prior to the commencement of the meeting concerned specifying the nature of the business they would like to raise under this Standing Order. The committee or sub-committee shall only consider such business in respect of which notice has
been given in accordance with this Standing Order and which the Chair has certified as urgent under S100B of the Local Government Act 1972.'

For Full Council meetings, this procedure should be followed, but substituting "the Mayor" as the person to whom written notice is given (as Cllr. Warren has done in this case). The Mayor, as Chair of the Full Council meeting, is the person who "certifies" that the business is urgent, or decides that it is not. The relevant legislation says:

'Section 100B
(4)An item of business may not be considered at a meeting of a principal council unless either—
(a) a copy of the agenda including the item (or a copy of the item) is open to inspection by members of the public in pursuance of subsection (1) above for at least [five clear days] before the meeting or, where the meeting is convened at shorter notice, from the time the meeting is convened; or
(b) by reason of special circumstances, which shall be specified in the minutes, the chairman of the meeting is of the opinion that the item should be considered at the meeting as a matter of urgency.'

The Chief Legal Officer is correct to refer to special circumstances, but any reasonable person would surely agree (as would the Mayor, if acting neutrally) that allowing elected councillors to express an opinion on a matter with such a tight timetable, and with such important implications for Council Tax and services affecting their constituents, is urgent business 'by reason of special circumstances'.